A number of things are wrong. First, I’m standing in a field surrounded by darkness, my mind pulling the covers over its head and mumbling into its pillow. Second, I’m in Spain and it’s summer, yet frost dances along the grass and spiked yellow flames snarl into the air like crazed snake tongues at an all-night rave.
Third, and most significantly, I’m about to climb into an oversized picnic basket that’s going to whisk me hundreds of metres above the earth with not so much as a seatbelt, a lifejacket or a parachute on hand. There’s not even going to be a well-groomed semaphore routine pointing out the nearest emergency exit.
I’m about to step into a hot air balloon. And it pains me to tell you I feel nervous.
A man unfolds a giant tent, laying it in front of an industrial-sized hairdryer and we all wait. The fabric billows slowly off the ground, air easing into its edges and rippling through to its tip.
I’m surprised at how large it is. After only a few minutes, there’s space for men to walk inside, a chamber larger than a marquee that glows an eerie soft green.
I’ve dreamed about hot air ballooning for years. As a child, it seemed a great adventure, as a teenager a romantic hope and then in my twenties, a thrilling chance to see the world. Those years have passed, however, gathering along in their wake an appreciation of pain, of accidents, and of multi-faceted safety concerns.
I don’t believe in mystical karma. I really don’t, yet is there a whisper of unexplained uncertainty in my semiconscious, slumbering mind? I have tried and tried and tried to get to this stage before, in many different countries with many different alarm clocks. I’ve taken time off work, driven through darkness, stayed up late and monitored the wind, the thunder and the raindrops before enforced cancellations reminded me time and time again how impotent we all are in the great scheme of things. How utterly insignificant.
After a while, I gave up trying. Perhaps some things are not meant to be. Then, a few months ago, the chance appeared again.
Maybe some things are not meant to be.
Now I stand in that field, mist curling around the trees like an 18th century painting. My breath hangs translucent in the air and I watch the tent take on the shape of a nuclear-powered lightbulb.
Maybe, maybe things aren’t meant to be. Maybe all that science means nothing. Perhaps never-ending near-misses really do mean that I should stay away, that the malevolence of the weather has protected me from danger and disaster in the sky.
I climb in.
I’m with friends and colleagues, a free-spirited crowd who don’t seem to have noticed the power-lines, the thin balloon fabric, the fire, and the insubstantial wicker basket.
Before I realise it, we’re gone. Not in a lurching, crushing, driving sense, but in a surreal, dreamlike flotation that teases us away from the earth.
The tyre tracks in the dew grow smaller and smaller. The second balloon fills my viewfinder before fading back into the field. On the horizon, the sun wins the race against the clouds and the slopes of the Pyrenees take shape, dressed in their finest British Racing Green.
The wicker feels stable and I can’t hear the wind.
We glide. Silently, weightlessly, floating through the sky.
Sunlight spreads across the forested volcanoes, highlighting each rise and fall with the excitement and care of a new mother introducing her baby.
I lean over the edge of the basket with a smile I haven’t felt since childhood.
This is the world we live in.
This is a brand new day.
And this, almost embarrassingly, is a dream come true.
I think about science, about superstition, about hope and dreams and joy and opportunity.
Earth, air, fire and water. That’s what ancient Greece believed to be the building blocks of the world. And from where I’m standing, only one of those is missing.
A friend taps me on the shoulder and passes me a glass. It’s cava rather than water, but I hope the Greeks won’t mind.
The bubbles sparkle as the sun strides onto the stage and the contours of Catalonia flow past below.
I know it’s not fashionable to say this, but I’m really, really happy.
Watching the others float by… Above the clouds in a hot air balloon…
I flew with Vol de Coloms, a local firm that organises hot air balloon rides complete with cava and a Catalan brunch afterwards. Great service, great fun, highly recommended.